Movie Review ~ Oz The Great and Powerful

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  When this project was first announced I remember being both horrified and excited at the prospect of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.  The horrified part of me couldn’t imagine why a studio would want to get within ten feet of one of the most beloved films in history.  Excitement came from the rundown of talented artists that would be bringing Oz to life for Walt Disney Studios: director Raimi, composer, Danny Elfman, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, and an award winning crew of visual effects craftspeople.

So even if the final project isn’t everything some dreamed it would be, the more I think about Oz the Great and Powerful (and I have found it on my mind a lot in the week since I’ve seen it) the more I appreciated it.

Getting right down to it, this prequel to the events that take place before Dorothy drops in is really just a re-telling of that later story but with the would-be Wizard taking the place of the girl in blue gingham and ruby red slippers.  The film opens on a county fair where magician Oz (a miscast Franco…more on him later) is wowing the small town crowd with his tricks.  Not a bad magician, he has no heart so he can never be truly great…and to top it all off he’s a blowhard lacking in the charm department.

It’s not long before a twister tunnels by and sweeps Oz away in a hot air balloon to the magical land of…well…Oz.  It’s a sign!  At least that’s what naïve witch Theodora (a marginally miscast Kunis…more on HER later) thinks when she witnesses Oz fall from the sky.  Taking him to meet her sister Evanora (a perfectly cast Weisz), Oz eventually finds himself on the hunt for the Wicked Witch terrorizing the land with her flying baboons.  Along the way he’ll meet another witch or two (one of the green variety) and learn a thing or two about friendship, honesty, and finds out there’s more to his magic than meets the eye.

That’s the gist of things and fans of The Wizard of Oz (either the movie or L. Frank Baum’s library of Oz-ian tomes) need not fret that this film will sully the image of Oz…that will surely be done by 2014’s Legend’s of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  Like the stage musical Wicked, this movie connects a few of the dots to its 1939 predecessor and those paying careful attention will see that the filmmakers have inserted a number of references to the previous film like using magical Oz-ian characters as Kansas counterparts .

Two bits of casting have received the most attention since the film was released and I can’t say that some of the gripes haven’t been justified.  Franco is simply not the man for the job here and he’s painfully miscast as Oz.  When you consider Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were the first choices for the wizard an extra pang hits you for the performance that might have been.  Kunis (Ted) isn’t as bad as the reviews say but she struggles quite a bit for at least the first 2/3 of the film.  I felt she got better as her character progressed but it never really lands like it should.

The good news is that Weisz and Williams are so good as Evanora and Glinda that you almost forget they are sharing scenes with lackluster partners.  Weisz wipes the floor with them all, though, in a cleverly coy role rife with lip smacking and glinting eyes.  She’s the one actor that doesn’t let the sumptuous effects dictate her performance.  Williams is strong too but at times it felt like she hadn’t fully shed her Marilyn Monroe persona as Glinda the Good (or is she?)  Braff and King steal their fair share of scenes in dual roles and Raimi peppers his supporting cases with journeymen actors from his stable.

Effects-wise, Oz looks incredible.  Produced by the same team that brought us the mind-crushingly awful Alice in Wonderland reboot a few years back, they’ve wisely stayed away from that super fake looking Wonderland world for a slightly more realized take on Oz.  It’s still too CGI heavy for me but there’s no denying that the movie is a true feast for the eyes.  Elfman’s score doesn’t stray too far from his norm of notes but he’s tailored it to whip up some magical moments of his own.

Very rarely do I find that 3D is really worth the upcharge but Oz is a film that really should be seen through a pair of 3D glasses.  The opening shots in glorious black and white are presented in a small aspect ratio (picture size), emulating a film from that era.  The 3D is purposely less “deep” in these shots to play in nice contrast with the added depth once we get to the Technicolor Oz.  Though prices for the 3D experience have risen, this is one film that’s more than worth it.

When the screening I saw was through, I wasn’t quite ready to make a final call on what I thought of the film but found that it was on my mind often in the following days.  No, it’s not a perfect film or the most original storyline…but it’s a visually arresting wonder that impressed me the longer it lingered in my memory.  Rumor is that plans are afoot for another sequel and based on what I saw here, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.  Would it be weird to recast Franco, though?

Movie Review ~ Stoker

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Nicole Kidman

Director: Park Chan-wook

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s rather interesting that the American film debut of Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy) would be a film that’s so European in its composition.  On the other hand, Chan-Wook is known for his rich visuals that tie into a narrative structure so it could just have been his destiny to be matched up with the script for Stoker, a corker of a thriller that makes no apologies for favoring style over substance.

That’s not to say that Prison Break star Wentworth Miller’s script doesn’t have a lot going for it; the tale of a fractured family with several skeletons in its closet provides some nice opportunities for its cast to go the distance while gleefully coloring outside the lines of character development.  Still, stepping back from my initial reaction to the film I must admit that the overall plot developments do feel very mannered and ordinary.  There’s nothing in the story department that hasn’t been done before in any number of potboiler films concerning unknown relatives with hidden agendas.

What I keep going back to with fondness is the way the film has a devil-may-care attitude as it plays tricks with our perception of what’s really going on.  That’s mostly thanks to Chan-Wook’s constantly moving camera and his clever employment of old-hat film techniques like freeze frames and close-ups. From frame one its clear the movie is ready for action and maintains that level of awareness throughout.

A movie so heavy on technique would only be moderately interesting without an equally dynamic cast to use it on.  Wasikowska plays dour like the best of ‘em and here she’s a sour puss child mourning her deceased father and avoiding her chilly mother (Kidman) at all costs.  Though the preview implies Kidman’s character is a bit shadier, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that this lady is more nuanced than that.  Goode is a UK actor that doesn’t rely on his All American looks to sell his All American Uncle who shows up and moves in before his brother’s body is cold.  Oscar nominee Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) pops in for a curious cameo as a Stoker aunt, Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) is a school acquaintance of Wasikowska, and Phyllis Somerville gets some solid (if brief) mileage as a sage housekeeper.

Soon, Wasikowska and Goode are finding a familial bond exists between them like Wasikowska had with her father…something that begins to drive a wedge further between mother and daughter.  Kidman is rarely without a glass of wine in her hand or glaze over her eyes and I was reminded of the mother in Lolita…so clueless as to what was happening around her.  It’s too late to go back once some truths are finally revealed and more than a few bodies start to pile up around the estate house where the movie runs its course.

The way I see it, Stoker could have gone one of two ways: it could have been an overheated gothic melodrama or a simmering fever dream of excess.  Thankfully it’s the latter and fans of stylishly made thrillers should get a kick out of Stoker’s richly weird performances that balance nicely with its cruel violence.  I can see where the film may be too stylized for some, but give this one strong consideration if you respond well to confidently made films.

Movie Review ~ West of Memphis

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three

Stars: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley

Director: Amy Berg

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The story of the West Memphis Three has already been covered extensively in three made-for-television feature length documentaries (the excellent Paradise Lost films) and in numerous online articles, specials, and books.  So what could the new documentary West of Memphis tell us that we don’t already know?  The answer: quite a lot and not enough.

I don’t want to say that I felt West of Memphis was a Cliffs Notes version of the Paradise Lost films with an extra material at the end but that’s a feeling I did have while screening the two and a half hour investigation into the crime that has plagued a small Arkansas community for nearly two decades.  Overall, it’s an arresting piece of entertainment that strikes all the right notes that make true crime films so fascinating.   Unlike the presentational nature of the other films though, this one seems more tell and less show…like its directing us to come to a certain conclusion based on its own agenda.

After three young boys are murdered and left in a watery grave a modern day witch hunt is enacted and three teens are jailed for the crime.  Two are sentenced to life in prison and one is sent to death row and had the case not received such national attention that very well could have been the end of the story.  However in the following years a lot of information comes to the surface that indicates the justice system failed these three accused boys serving time for a crime they very well likely had nothing to do with.  As more evidence is scrutinized with the latest technology, signs start to point away from the convicted and to family members that may have been involved.

What’s been so fascinating through the years is how the lives of everyone close to the case have taken such cinematic turns.  Death, forgiveness, and redemption are all on display in grand fashion – and even the best screenwriter couldn’t have come up with what actually happened in reality.

A swath of celebrities came to the aide of the West Memphis Three and the film is partly the product of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s efforts to get involved and search for the truth with other famous faces like Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Johhny Depp.

Compiling new interviews with footage culled from decades of information and multiple sources, director Berg tends to jump around in timelines too often.  At one point, we’re in 2006 and then we’re in 2012 before circling back to 2005 and then landing in 2007.  It can be a bit disorienting when a through line of information is really desired.

Berg and the filmmakers clearly have their sights set on a suspect and aggressively present their case to we, the audience.  The television documentaries had suspects in mind as well…but there’s something about the way this feature film goes down a similar path that had me digging my heels in slightly. See, if the whole issue is that the West Memphis Three were wrongly seen as guilty until proven innocent, how fair is that for the film to want us to take that same approach with their #1 suspect?  Admittedly, the evidence is pretty strong but that could be a little bit of cinematic license.

No doubt about it, this case continues to haunt anyone that comes in contact with it.  Three boys were brutally murdered and that is a terrible crime…but as is the case in any crime there are collateral damage victims as well.  The film is strongest when it focuses on these victims and the least focused when it’s zeroing in on a suspect.

Hollywood isn’t done with this story yet.  Devil’s Knot, a film adaption of Mara Leveritt’s book on the crime, is due out later this year with star Reese Witherspoon playing the mother of one of the murdered children.  If you haven’t seen the Paradise Lost films and have an interest in true crime you must seek them out.  West of Memphis is also strongly worthy as an added addendum to those films.

Movie Review ~ The Call

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When 911 operator Jordan Turner receives a call from a girl who has just been abducted, she soon realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Michael Imperioli

Director: Brad Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s so aggravating to find yourself in the theater watching a B-movie that thinks it’s playing in the big leagues, so there’s something to be said about a movie that knows its place.  Though it’s a B-movie through and through, The Call manages to rise above its direct-to-video set-up and break on through to the other side of schlock entertainment.

I’d seen the trailer for The Call more than a few times and with each viewing I was less and less interested in it because I felt the preview gave away too much of the movie…a feeling I still stand by after seeing the final product.  However, even a giveaway trailer couldn’t quite put a damper on the fact that the film is more enjoyable than it has any real right to be.

Originally titled The Hive, referring to the 911 control center where much of the film takes place, The Call starts out strong as we find 911 operator Jordan (Berry, Cloud Atlas) using her expertise to help a young girl escape an intruder.  Trouble is, Berry is too on the ball and she inadvertently plays a part in the girl’s demise at the hands of a killer.  Six months pass and Berry is unable to bring herself to take more calls, deciding instead to teach incoming operators…until a girl (Breslin) calls from the trunk of a car after being abducted from a mall parking lot.

The Operator and The Abducted work together as they battle near escapes, broken cell signals, and one very loony tunes psycho across the highways and byways of Los Angeles.  Under Anderson’s (The Machinist, Next Stop Wonderland, the underrated Session 9) slick direction, the film chugs along without ever letting the audience get too far ahead.  Though Richard D’Ovidio’s lean script is filled with your stock close calls and convenient happenstances, it somehow works in a throwback sort of way.

Oscar winner Berry has had a rough go with movie choices for most of her career – for every good movie she’s done there are three or four others that she (and we) would like to forget.  I had my reservations going in and although she lays the emotional anxiety on thick, she acquits herself nicely by making her character a believable fighter and do-righter.  Breslin is another actress that can’t quite find her footing as she mozies through some teenage awkwardness…but the film allows her some opportunity to break out of the Little Miss Sunshine mode.

Most interesting in the cast is Eklund as our resident kidnapper (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler).  Eklund’s role is a tricky one – in these types of films the killer is usually either a pervert or nutcase and Eklund opts to mash those two together and produces a slow burn of creepiness.  When the film trips near the end and rips off a classic Oscar winning horror film it’s Eklund that brings it back to reality.

It’s not a perfect film by any means.  The secondary characters exist only to get Berry, Breslin, and Eklund where the script dictates they need to be and the ending may be something the audience wants but it’s not what the movie deserves.  Fortunately, for the previous 90 minutes The Call has brought you along on a breezy thrill ride that serves its purpose and delivers the goods.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.

Release Date:  April 26, 2013

Thoughts:   Director Mira Nair has given us some of the most visually sumptuous films in the last several decades; I loved the popular Monsoon Wedding and still wish that The Namesake had received more notice when it was released.  Now comes The Reluctant Fundamentalist and its shows the director moving away from themes that involve family relations and on to more political overtones.  Nair has assembled a surprising and diverse cast, couple that with an intriguing plot and you have a movie I won’t be fundamentally reluctant to see.